I've written previously on the blog about shooting with intent - that is, heading out with a theme in mind and shooting images that match that theme. This provides a focus and a goal for your photography, and starts to create a body of work that perhaps one day could become an exhibition, photo story, book or a series of prints on your wall.
One of my favourite themes to shoot is scenes with high contrast shadows and silhouettes, in black and white. I have been shooting these types of images since I discovered the amazing work of Sydney street photographer Markus Anderson, who has shot a whole series of photos in this style (search 'rage against the light'). I'm also inspired by the work of the late and great Fan Ho, who also utilised this look on many of his images. I encourage you to check these photographers out. In the meantime, here are some tips on making high contrast street photographs, based on what I have learned so far.
Look for geometry
Black and white high contrast images work well with geometric shapes, clean hard edges and clearly defined contrasting areas. Geometric shapes can form graphic silhouettes, and can provide a ‘frame within a frame’ for your subjects. They also work well with contrasting tones, leave interesting shadows that mirror shapes and objects and provide juxtaposition in a scene that draws the attention of your viewer. Geometric structures also tend to leave really interesting shadows which can look other-worldly in high contrast black and white. Similarly, geometric patterns can work well in this style and add visual drama to an image.
Simplify and isolate subjects to tell a clear story
Decluttering a scene lets the shapes created by the shadows and silhouettes take centre stage in the image. Using careful framing, seeking locations that are not too crowded, and always trying to reduce the elements in the frame to only the minimum required, can help create a high contrast image that is bold, striking and is immediately interesting to your viewers. Assess your frame and look for elements that can be removed whilst still leaving you with a photograph that works.
Look for Symmetry
As well as accentuating geometric shape, high contrast black and white also works with symmetry. Symmetry can be found in many different guises on the street. Symmetry works well when it is the focus of an image, so try to draw attention to it in the frame. When the angle of light is low, shadows appear long and symmetrical to the object that is casting them, allowing for interesting plays on form and turning everyday objects into unique shapes. Symmetry can also be found in reflections. Look for these in shopfronts, polished stone buildings, wet pavement and glass structures to add interest to your images.
Use exposure settings to accentuate contrast
As the scene you are shooting will have lots of dark and light areas that are contrasting with each other, decisions about exposure can be tricky. Exposing for the highlights in the scene to retain as much detail as possible is a good approach - let the blacks go black. Depending on the scene and circumstances the easiest and fastest way to do this is in Aperture Priority (Av, A) mode, using the exposure compensation dial to quickly get the right balance of light and dark tones. Alternatively accentuating highlights can also create high contrast images with punch. It does depend on the scene though - it is worth making many frames and assessing the results back at the computer.
Find the right light
Long shadows caused by the sun or light source coming in from an angle will elongate shadows and add them as ‘characters' to a scene. If you are looking for this, going out in the morning or afternoon when the sun is at a low angle usually works best for high contrast black and whites. In urban areas this does not necessarily mean sunrise or sunset as the sun may be too low to make it over buildings and other structures. Light during this time tends to be too diffused to make crisp shadows. I prefer winter light for these types of images as the sun tends to stay low all day, even around midday, which is often the only time I get to hit the streets (Bonus tip: forego the sandwich and use your lunch hour to shoot!).
Understanding how to work with backlighting in order to create dark silhouttes of the shapes and subjects in your image is also important. Stand facing the light, expose for the highlights and let the elements in shade underexpose, and use these in your composition. If you are facing direct sun, you can block it behind an element in your scene to minimise blowing out the bright tones (highlights) completely.
Of course, shooting in the middle of the day is also a great way of using the harsh light to create high contrast images - there won’t be prominent shadows but there will be plenty of contrast and hard edges that you can work with in post production to achieve the look that you want.
Post Process to finalise the look
Converting to black and white in post is the first step in my workflow for this kind of image. I then tweak the tones from there. Post processing usually means playing with the contrast, highlights, shadows, blacks and whites sliders to get the look that you want. Don't forget to straighten your images and check the edges of the frame carefully - small slithers of light or dark can really draw the eye where you do not want it to go when going for a high contrast look.
That’s it for my thoughts on an approach to shooting high contrast black and white images in street photography. Do you have any questions or thoughts? Please be sure to leave me a comment below so I can add to and improve this post!